Elevator Man: Bradley Edwards Reaches for the Heights

BradleyC. Edwards, president and founder of Carbon Designs Inc., is the driving forcebehind the space elevator, a purportedly safer and cheaper form of transportingexplorers and payloads into space.

Although the idea has appeared in both technical andfictional literature for decades, the drive to bring it to reality belongs toEdwards. A cable extending from the Earth's surface to outer space is keptunder tension by the competing forces of gravity on Earth and the outwardrotational acceleration of the planet in space. Once the cable is aloft, theelevator will be ascended by mechanical means.

Sounds impossible? That's what prompted Edwards to lookfurther into it. While he had heard of the idea, the turning point was when hecame across a web page in 1998 implying that such a device could not be builtfor 300 years, if ever. "It was then that I started looking into it and I justnever stopped," said Edwards in a recent interview with SPACE.com.

"This was just a blanket statement with no justification asto what the issues were" he added with regards to the information on thewebpage. "I just couldn't believe that it couldn't be built and started to getsucked in further and further," said Edwards, a curious physicist.

He pursued the realization of the space elevator byinitially tracking grants from NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC)program. As the proposed design further developed, the idea generated interestamongst private investors, launching Edwards' vision.

Edwards, now Director of Research for the Institute forScientific Research (ISR), based in Fairmont, West Virginia, was alwaysinterested in the space program. As a child, he dreamt of becoming an astronautand pursued physics in both his undergraduate and graduate studies. However, rejectedby the astronaut program due to asthma, he went on to work at the Los AlamosNational Laboratory in New Mexico,researching advanced space technologies for 11 years.

Edwards' work included conception and designs of the Europa and Lunar orbiter missions and construction of thefirst optical "cryo-cooler", an efficient coolingsystem using fluorescence technology. "The space elevator was just sort of thenext step," he said.

The biggest challenge to the space elevator has beendeveloping a cable tough enough to extend 62,000 miles without breaking. This,Edwards explained will be solved with carbon nanotubecomposites - tiny bundles of carbon weaved together to form a ribbon that willbe stronger than steel. His startup company, Carbon Designs, Inc., is currentlyfocused on developing this technology.

The space elevator is even more uplifting than it seems.Spacefarers no longer need to fear the dramatic forces and vibrations normallyexperienced with a rocket launch. This vehicle can adjust its speed to accommodatepassengers.

Likewise, cargo and astronauts eliminate the crushing forcesof re entry used by rockets for slowing down when coming back to Earth. "Youcan travel as slow as 10 miles per hour, making it [re entry] much safer,"Edwards said.

In contrast to rockets where most of what's being launchedis fuel, the space elevator moves only the payload, a set of motors, andstructures needed for its operation.

With the fuel cost almost eliminated, only everydayoperations and the mechanical climber expenses remain. Edwards estimates thatthe cost of launching into the lower earth orbit will be reduced from $10,000per pound on Shuttle missions to $100 per pound on the space elevator.

"Once you reduce thecost to almost a Fed-Ex kind of level, it opens the doors to lots of people,lots of countries, and lots of companies to get involved in space," Edwardsemphasized. No longer will space travel be limited to the United States, Europe, Russia, China, and other major players.

If a research institution wanted to build a small greenhouseon the Martian surface, this technology makes the next planet a hop, skip, anda rotational fling away.

Similarly, a hypothetical company can pursue gamingenterprises and send a thousand little rovers to the moon, renting time out tocustomers who want to control one with a joystick for an hour back here onEarth.

Such dramatic increase in the size and activity of the spacemarket would boost our understanding of the universe and generate otheryet-unimaginable benefits, Edwards predicts.

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Sara Goudarzi
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and poet and covers all that piques her curiosity, from cosmology to climate change to the intersection of art and science. Sara holds an M.A. from New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and an M.S. from Rutgers University. She teaches writing at NYU and is at work on a first novel in which literature is garnished with science.